‘Fighting for 40 years’: The tiny Texas community facing down Big Industry

Corpus Christi, Texas residents are fighting the encroachment of desalination plants in the Texas Coastal Bend.

Encarnacion 'Chon' Serna points at the construction of petrochemical plants in Ingleside, seen from his home in Portland, Corpus Christi, Texas, the United States [Aina Marzia/Al Jazeera]

Corpus Christi, Texas, US – “It’s a beautiful bay, and it was even more beautiful in the beginning,” says 72-year-old Encarnacion “Chon” Serna, a retired chemical engineer, as he describes Corpus Christi Bay, which lies just a few feet from his doorstep in Portland, Corpus Christi in Texas. It’s the home in which Serna and his wife raised their four children and where their 10 grandchildren often visit to play in the waters that can be heard hitting the shore from their house.

Now, as the oil, gas and petrochemical industries threaten to take what’s left of the Gulf Coast along with Serna’s backyard – petrochemical facilities are currently being built in Ingleside, not far from his home – and as large-scale desalination projects, which will service these industries, gain approval to discharge wastewater back into the bay, he wonders how much longer it will survive.

“I’m not going to take this house or this bay to the coffin. It’s a legacy. It must be here in a healthy form so that future generations can enjoy what I enjoyed,” Serna says.

Just minutes from Serna’s home lie the shores of the La Quinta Channel, home to the Port of Corpus Christi that is owned and operated by the counties of Nueces, San Patricio, and Corpus Christi and is the largest gateway for US-produced energy exports. There, the port authorities and the City of Corpus Christi are each planning to build and operate a new desalination plant – making two in total on La Quinta Channel – if granted final permits by the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ).

Serna explains the harms of desalination with diagrams and research he has done, from his dock [Aina Marzia/Al Jazeera]

The La Quinta desalination plants are just two of a total five proposed desalination plants to be built in the Coastal Bend, an area of Texas coastline that meets the Gulf of Mexico. Besides the La Quinta Channel plants, the port authorities also want to build another desalination plant in Harbor Island, in the bay, and the city authorities are planning another in Inner Harbor – an industrialised area, which includes residential neighbourhoods, close to La Quinta. A fifth has been proposed by Corpus Christi Polymers, a plastic resin manufacturer, in Corpus Christi Bay on the Joe Fulton Corridor, which connects to the port’s shipping channel.

If approved, the five plants will all draw water from the Corpus Bay to feed the massive oil, gas and petrochemicals industrial hub in Corpus Christi.

Not only will local residents not benefit from the desalinated water produced by this project – most of the water will go to industrial premises – they fear that the ultimate result will be the loss of their homes in an area that includes one of the city’s last predominantly Black communities as the industrial area slowly expands. They should know – they’ve already faced down this threat once before, in 2020, when construction of the new Harbor Bridge began. That bridge will ultimately replace the existing arch bridge, spanning the Corpus Christi Ship Channel and connecting the US 181, and I-37 freeways between south and north Corpus Christi and north of Serna’s home.

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For Serna, the bay represents the happier side of his life: “I swim, I kayak, and I fish. My children and grandchildren all come here, and they swim, kayak, and fish. A desalination plant with these discharges would ruin it.”

An avid fisherman, Serna describes seeing the slow extinction of native species in Corpus Bay since the industry began expanding in the late 2000s and how they have long threatened the environment around them.

“There’s still life in there. I can tell you that it’s not as abundant as it used to be. You still see the blue crab, but you don’t see it in the same numbers as before. The redfish is very resilient. The black drum and other species like trout and flounder, you don’t see very much of them.”

Serna’s daughter, Blanca Parkinson, an elementary school teacher in Corpus Christi with three teen children of her own, feels similar ties to a childhood she doesn’t think is possible for her children to have.

“I grew up on the shores of Corpus Christi Bay. My dad always dreamed of us living close to the water. I remember our neighbours all having swimming pools, but we didn’t because my dad was like, ‘Swim in the bay’.

“My childhood was very much tied to the bay. It does affect you very much to think that by the time my children are grown, it may very well be a dead bay.”

‘It affects me to think that by the time my children are grown, it may very well be a dead bay,’ says Blanca Parkinson, Serna’s daughter, who grew up on Corpus Christi Bay [Aina Marzia/Al Jazeera]

Parkinson, who lives minutes from what locals call “Refinery Row”, a 16km (10-mile) petrochemical facility made up of six refineries, on the north side of Corpus Christi in the Hillcrest community, says that the bay close to her parents’ home once offered respite from a life of dull smoke and flares.

She describes the bay as the place where the community could bike, birdwatch and have some “quality of life”. Now that’s all under threat.

With two proposed plants downstream of the La Quinta Channel and her parents’ backyard – and a third proposal in the Corpus Christi Ship Channel, or the “Industrial Canal” as it is called by the Port of Corpus Christi, just minutes from her own house – these three proposed plants in particular leave no escape.

While the area where Parkinson lives to the north side of the new Harbor Bridge has long been industrialised, her parents’ home to the south side of the bridge – once a haven for her and her children to escape to from time to time – is now also falling within the industrial area.

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“It’s affecting us everywhere,” she says. “It used to be that we lived in an area where there was more industry, but we would go to grandma’s; now it’s all under attack. My kids will pull [the car] over, and they’ll cast their nets, and they’ll come up with shrimp. You see the stark difference between life and death. And it will make you cry.”

Serna’s and Parkinson’s situations are not isolated cases, and neither are the La Quinta plants. For the greater part of the Coastal Bend and its residents, desalination is a looming threat to their water, lifestyles and, for some, even their homes, as five proposed plants and the industries they will service advance around the bay.

The Port of Corpus Christi did not respond to questions about the proposed plants or any other issues raised by Al Jazeera in this article.

Serna, who has been fighting the construction and their permits for the last three years with little success, is left with one conclusion about those in power.

“They don’t care about the people,” he says. “They don’t care about our natural resources.”

Chon Serna on his dock, which stretches into the Corpus Christi Bay [Aina Marzia/Al Jazeera]

Desalination – no ‘Holy Grail’

Corpus Christi Bay has historically attracted refineries and corporations because of its abundance of liquefied natural gas (LNG), petroleum and crude oil. It is already home to 30 petroleum refineries and one-fifth of the nation’s petroleum and coal industry jobs.

The city and the corporations operating in the bay have tapped these resources for decades. Through the establishment of Humble Oil in 1927; the opening of Brauer Corporation and Reynolds Metals in 1950; the building of the CITGO oil refinery in 1990; and the subsequent construction of several 1,000-foot (305m) wide and 45-foot (14m) deep oil docks, which stretch along what the port authorities call the “Inner Harbor”, the oil industry’s stronghold on the bay has only deepened over the years.

And, as more and more industries have arrived, the demand has intensified on water resources they rely on for distillation, extraction, washing processes, and cooling systems. The city and its planners have long believed that large-scale desalination of sea water is the solution to this problem.

At first, the idea of removing salt from ocean water may have seemed innovative, but experts and environmentalists disagree about the benefits.

“Everyone thinks that the solution to water problems is desalination. But it hasn’t turned into the Holy Grail that I think some of the proponents hoped for,” explains Robert Glennon, a water rights lawyer at the University of Arizona.

If granted wastewater and discharge permits by the TCEQ, the desalination process could be highly energy-intensive, environmentally challenging, and damage existing water systems beyond repair, Glennon explains. In the case of Corpus Christi Bay, large-scale desalination among the plants that are in the process of acquiring permits will mean diverting more than 2,270 litres (600 gallons) of water from the bay every day.

A portion of the diverted water would be desalinated or treated while the rest would be mixed back in with the highly saline remains to dilute the brine before it is put back into the ocean. In Corpus, this could mean more than 1,033 litres (273 gallons) of brine being pumped back into the bay a day, doubling ocean salinity every time water goes through the desalination process, harming ocean organisms and causing the coral to die, Glennon explains.

“Dumping that much salt into salty water in a fragile marine environment is the last straw for those communities,” he adds.

The area within the Hillcrest neighbourhood that has been allocated for the proposed desalination plant [Aina Marzia/Al Jazeera]

Besides the salty brine, the biggest concern for residents is that the desalination project won’t benefit them. It is unclear what proportion of the water will go to the residents, but it is known that the majority will be for industrial use.

Elida Castillo, a resident of Taft in San Patricio County in the Coastal Bend and the co-founder of Chispa Texas, an environmental rights organisation, explains how the city has a long history of “selling out” the community water to corporations. “Our access to water is not great, and in an area prone to historic droughts, they [the city] continue to approve large-volume water users, which pits the community against the fossil fuel industry.”

Castillo is referring to the 2015 citywide droughts, during which the Corpus Christi water district reservoir level fell below 30 percent capacity, leading to long-term problems with the supply of water. On June 14, 2022, the city placed “Stage One” water restrictions on residents, after the reservoir fell below 40 percent, officially marking the start of a drought that has only worsened ever since. At the start of this year, the reading hit 29.9 percent – the lowest it has been since 2015, and marking the start of “Stage Two” water restrictions, under which water sprinklers, for example, are allowed just once every two weeks.

In 2021, the city manager approved the building of ExxonMobil-SABIC’s manufacturing facility and a $9.3bn petrochemical plant in San Patricio County along Corpus Christi Bay. To operate this plastics plant, the city broke the safety margin, using water that is meant to be kept as a last resort in case of a drought and selling 75 million litres (20 million gallons) of water a day to ExxonMobil and SABIC and an additional 19 million litres (5 million gallons) a day to Steel Dynamics, whose project went up simultaneously. Three years later, the same water shortages are snowballing.

A street in Hillcrest that is close to one of the existing refineries in Inner Harbor [Aina Marzia/Al Jazeera]

Purchasable drought exemptions, which allow corporations to buy extra water from the city, show how the city prioritises water distribution, Parkinson says. While residents are subject to restricted water access and face fines as high as $500 if they exceed their allocated limit – for example, by watering their lawns – industrial water customers can buy drought exemptions from the City Council, costing just 25 cents per 3,785 litres (1,000 gallons) of water, and face no restrictions at all.

ExxonMobil, SABIC and Steel Dynamics did not respond to requests for comment about this or any other issue raised in this article.

Following a pattern of ‘environmental racism’

From the Hillcrest neighbourhood on the other side of the Harbor Bridge from Portland, where Serna lives, residents can glimpse the shipping channel beyond the oil docks – what they call the “Industrial Canal”. For them, the news of a new desalination plant to service a proposed Ammonia plant in Robstown, in Nueces County just 32km (20 miles) from Corpus Christi Bay, just confirms a wider pattern of historical and environmental racism faced by the Black and brown communities of the city, activists say.

Monna Lytle at her childhood home in Hillcrest with anti-desalination posters [Aina Marzia/Al Jazeera]

In the early 1900s, the Hillcrest area was home to the local country club and was exclusively a white area of Corpus Christi. As existing Black and Hispanic communities in other parts of the city became overcrowded, the Corpus Christi Housing Authority allowed Hillcrest to be opened to African Americans in 1944 – just as the city started allocating areas of the community as industrial land, starting with the construction of “Refinery Row” in the 1960s. As a result of that, more affluent, predominantly white, residents moved out and the neighbourhood became predominantly Black.

With Jim Crow-era laws still in place back then, the Hillcrest neighbourhood was one of the only places in a segregated Corpus Christi where Black people from the city were permitted to buy homes. Now, this lively, interconnected community of locals who once enjoyed a wide buffer zone between the flares of the oil docks and their homes, has been dragged completely into the industrial area itself. Residents say this was done by stealth, without any overt announcement, with the development of Inner Harbor – a thin industrial channel to the west of Harbor Bridge.

“We kept hearing about ‘Inner Harbor’, but we did not know that ‘Inner Harbor’ was our neighbourhood,” says Monna Lytle, who has lived in the Hillcrest neighbourhood for the past 20 years.

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Jestine Knox, the assistant principal at Sanders Elementary in Corpus Christi – who has lived in the Hillcrest neighbourhood, one of the last remaining predominantly African American communities in Corpus, for the past 59 years with her daughter and husband, LaMarcus Knox – explains how the neighbourhood feels it is under constant threat of being bought out by corporations.

From fighting the construction of a wastewater plant at the end of their street in 2002 to filing more than six title complaints about the refineries operated by CITGO, Valero and Flint Hills Resources in the last two decades, over the years, residents say they’ve come to find out that refineries have purchased land within what was meant to be a 1.6km (one-mile) buffer zone between the industrial area and the residential areas surrounding it, but that they didn’t even know it had been bought out.

“Big industry feels like they can just walk over us, and that’s what they’ve been doing for the last 20 years,” says Knox.

She recalls the several blocks of residential homes whose inhabitants were offered “voluntary relocation” in 2020 by the Port of Corpus Christi to build the Harbour Bridge. The port hired lawyers to manage relocations for homeowners, who were not monetarily compensated, she says. Residents who opted for relocation were simply given new homes elsewhere selected by the firm through private deals. Those who refused to go were told that construction would continue regardless, explains Knox, who along with her family refused to relocate.

Knox says several of her neighbours who chose to relocate had no idea when they had to move out, often being told to leave within hours’ notice. She fears that the same will be offered to her again if the desalination plants are approved.

The current area designated for the Inner Harbour desalination plant was sold to the City of Corpus Christi two years ago by the Koch brothers’ Flint Hills Resources, which had owned the land since 1995. Flint Hills did not disclose how much it paid for those neighbourhoods when it first bought them in Hillcrest. The sale between the company and the city was contested by Hillcrest residents in a private meeting in early 2022, Knox explains, describing how the residents asked the refinery not to hand the land over for desalination – and how their requests were dismissed.

Jestine Knox
‘Big industry feels like they can just walk over us,’ says Jestine Knox, assistant principal at Sanders Elementary, at her house in Hillcrest, Corpus Christi, Texas [Aina Marzia/Al Jazeera]

A Flint Hills spokesperson told Al Jazeera via email that during the meeting with local residents the company had “conveyed our intent to sell the property, noting it would be within the city’s authority to acquire this land through the use of ’eminent domain’ [a power of local government to seize private property for public use] if a voluntary transaction could not be arranged”.

Approvals of these sales often happen under the radar, the residents claim.

Residents believe that the choice of location for the desalination plant – the shipping channel that is used to transport crude oil, natural gas, grain and wind energy components to and from the port – is also strategic. It is fenced off to residents and cannot be seen directly from the bay front.

The most visible part of the bay and tourist zone is Ocean Drive, where no plants are planned.

Knox says that the chosen location means that the effects that the plant will have on the bay will be hidden from view.

“You put it in this area, then you can’t just see what it’s doing to the bay. How many people come here to this neighbourhood to see the destruction that they’re doing? Why hide it out over here? It’s an environmental cover-up.”

Hillcrest home
A house in the Hillcrest neighbourhood with a ‘Stop Desalination’ sign in front of it, and industrial buildings behind [Aina Marzia/Al Jazeera]

The biggest fear for Lamont Taylor – a 71-year-old resident of Hillcrest who has lived here since his family moved to the neighbourhood from the next-door Washington-Coles district, a predominantly Hispanic and Black community which is adjacent to Hillcrest, after the Civil Rights Act in 1964 – is that the neighbourhood will disappear without a trace, just like other parts of the community.

Taylor alleges that city authorities have steadily isolated them and are now threatening to squeeze them out entirely.

The construction of the new Harbour Bridge runs along the eastern side of the neighbourhood, while the west side is lined by Refinery Row. The last remaining side is right next to the channel – the location of the desalination plant.

“They’re still trying to encroach in. Making it an industrial area and desalination will be the nail in the coffin,” Taylor says.

As more and more areas in Hillcrest get eaten up by industry, residents believe that building a desalination plant in the same zip code as residents and calling it the “Inner Harbor” is part of a larger cover-up. They say no one ever told them that their own neighbourhood was considered part of this industrial area – and their biggest worry is that the harm of it will go unnoticed.

“They are putting it [a desalination plant] in a neighbourhood and calling it ‘Inner Harbor’. Why do you do all of that? All of it is to push the people out,” says Reverend Claudia Rush, pastor of the Brooks Worship Center Church, which lies at the centre of the community.

The church remains a cultural cornerstone in the community; a desalination plant just minutes from it would prevent access to the congregation and impact the health of hundreds of attendees, residents say. Jackie Caldwell, a 67-year-old resident of Corpus Christi and a retired educator with Enlightenment Consulting in Corpus Christi, who has been attending Brooks Worship Center for the past 40 years, worries that the congregation she grew up with will disappear altogether. “It’s where we gathered on Sunday afternoons. It’s where I took my kids to play in the park. It’s where we meet people regularly. Now the city says it’s not even a neighbourhood?”

Lamont Taylor, 71, a resident of Hillcrest, says he is worried his community will simply ‘disappear’ as a result of encroaching industry and planned desalination plants [Aina Marzia/Al Jazeera]

Some are starting to wonder what life will look like with the noise and air pollution and say they fear worsening health conditions that may well come with the creeping industrialisation of their home – and even if they will be able to stay here at all.

“If you’re going to bring that desal plant that’s going to destroy us – our health, our breathing, the unknown? What are you trying to do? You’re trying to kill us. You’re trying to kill our joy, our lives, and our peace,” Lytle says.

Caldwell, who was previously an educational consultant for a firm in the community, is concerned about the worsening health of students attending school near the desalination plant. “We have children who have all kinds of medical conditions. Oak Park Elementary is right there on the edge of it,” she says.

“There’s this history of diseases, illnesses, and the medical conditions of the residents of Hillcrest, and it’s been tied directly back to the refineries,” she adds.

In a 2021 health report [PDF] conducted by Nueces County, researchers found that the predominantly Black and Hispanic communities of the city in the Hillcrest and Washington-Coles zip codes had life expectancy some 15 years shorter than people living in other parts of the Coastal Bend. The report also indicated that the same residents were at a higher risk of “​​facing a confluence of social, economic, and environmental challenges”. Among them were chronic conditions such as high blood pressure, obesity and diabetes.

Additionally, a health survey of Refinery Row [PDF] was carried out by the US Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR) between 1993 and 2008 using various air quality tests. It found that the Corpus Christi Refinery Row area showed higher rates of asthma, two types of birth defects and certain cancers compared with other areas. It also linked long-term exposure to petrochemical substances to illnesses.

Rev Claudia Rush
Reverend Claudia Rush, at the Brooks Worship Center, is concerned about health problems many residents in Hillcrest have [Aina Marzia/Al Jazeera]

Compounding what its members see as a pattern of environmental negligence and class-related health issues, the Hillcrest community believes this constitutes environmental racism. Now, as construction of these plants enters the final stages of approval from the TCEQ – a spokesman for which confirmed to Al Jazeera by email that “draft wastewater discharge permits are not often denied” – residents in the Hillcrest community and within the greater Corpus Christi area are refusing to leave without a fight, even under unfavourable odds.

Having been asked to leave previously under the relocation act with the Harbor Bridge and when the first oil refinery plants were built on Nueces Bay, they believe they will be asked – or even told – to do so once again.

Corpus Christi and its city manager did not respond to requests for comment about this.

‘Environmental racism’

In 2022, the Hillcrest Residents Association (HRA), which has led the legal fight against industry in the community for years, lodged a “Title XI” complaint with the US Department of Justice (DOJ) about the “environmental racism” and “industrialisation, isolation and pollution” that a desalination plant would potentially cause the predominately African American and Hispanic neighbourhood.

Refinery Row
The area known locally as ‘Refinery Row’ as seen from Hillcrest Park in Corpus Christi, Texas [Aina Marzia/Al Jazeera]

More than a year later, however, the TCEQ is moving along with the review process and still has not decided if residents will be granted a formal contested case hearing under the law. Residents also say they have yet to hear back about the DOJ complaint they filed, even as the TCEQ process moves forward.

“We’ve been fighting for 40 years, and it gets old and it becomes tiring,” Reverend Rush says about the battle between industry and the people, which to her seems endless.

Back in Portland, Serna says he participated in a year-long “contested case” in 2021 to block the approval of the water rights permit for the city’s desalination plant in the La Quinta Channel. A contested case hearing is the only legal avenue that the state allows residents to pursue to have a permit denied. Even then, the legal hearing process can take months, in between procedure depositions, cross-examinations, and witness testimonies. These cases also become costly projects that burden communities who are trying to fight the system.

“They’re very stressful efforts, take a lot of energy, and can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars,” Serna says. “What individual on his own has half a million dollars to fight for two years, to hire witness experts, to hire people who can do modelling, to hire lawyers to fight this?”

Serna and the other residents who participated in the hearing ultimately lost their contested case hearing against the Port of Corpus Christi in La Quinta Channel last December. The port was granted 238,064 litres (62,890 gallons) of water per minute in water rights for “industrial purposes” by the TCEQ.

Now, Serna says, there is little or no recourse for residents to fight the city authorities. But despite this blow, all is not lost, say campaigners, who are determined to continue the fight.

Monna Lytle and Dr Isabel Araiza
‘I’ll lay down so they can’t even bulldoze’, says Monna Lytle (left), pictured with Isabel Araiza (right) in front of one of the proposed desalination plant sites [Aina Marzia/Al Jazeera]

Isabel Araiza, who co-founded the nonprofit For the Greater Good in 2015, has fought desalination for the past four years and explains what grassroots work in the anti-desalination movement looks like.

“The institutions that exist now are not designed to serve people like us. Historically, they were used to exploit people like us, to disenfranchise people like us, and to take from us. We have to start building the possibility for a better tomorrow within our community so that our community can demand it through our public institutions,” she says.

For the HRA, years of neglect by the city have fuelled a stronger determination to assert their right to exist, and it is this commitment that keeps the fight against massive industrialisation mobilised.

“You’re being lied to in your face. That’s the thing that makes me frustrated. You’re going to piss me off. Okay, let me show you. I’m going to fight,” Rush says.

For them, it’s a matter of life and death. “We will fight to the end because we have families and this is home. If we wanted to move, we would’ve left at the relocation that they gave us, but we did not want to relocate; we want to stay where we are,” Lytle says, as they all await public hearings, town halls and word on their Title XI complaint.

“I’ll lay down so they can’t even bulldoze, and take the first hit if I have to,” Lytle asserts.

Source: Al Jazeera